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Friday, Jul 13, 2007


Call it geek chic or designer dorkiness, but nerds have become quite the pop culture cause celeb. Perhaps it has something to do with our growing tech savvy demographic, or the PC pronouncements against being cliquish, bullying or superior. Indeed, in a world where everyone is considered equal, smarts offset by social awkwardness is one of the few ways to significantly stand out. Thanks in large part to the cult phenomenon Napoleon Dynamite and its quintessential quote heavy narrative, the uber dweeb has spread his and/or her entertainment possibilities worldwide. Even far off and secluded New Zealand has come up with their own cinematic celebration of the communal outsider. Unfortunately, while quite engaging, the enigmatically named Eagle vs. Shark forgets a couple of the key rules for navigating the weirdo waters.


Our story centers around two misguided losers. Lily works at a greasy spoon burger joint, her attempts to fit in constantly thwarted by the blond hair and buxom set. But everyday, around noon, she stops pouting and perks up. You see, Jarrod from down the local media palace enjoys taking his lunch at Lily’s place of employment, and she’s desperate to catch his eye. Naturally, he’s oblivious. However, an invitation to his animal costume party provides our heroine her in. Over the course of the affair, the two fall for each other as only the insular and sheltered can – over a Mortal Combat like video game – and before we know it, they are off on an adventure to Jarrod’s hometown. Seems Mr. Misfit has been training to get revenge on the bully who picked on him all throughout high school. Thanks to Lily – and her brother’s available car – the couple can kill two confrontations with one trip. The first being Jarrod’s tormentor. The second is his dramatically dysfunctional family.


All of this might sound like fodder for some sort of hilarious comedy of mis-manners, but the truth is far more telling. Eagle vs. Shark is more interested in whimsy than wit, and when it comes to milking its characters for a little goofball charm, we are stuck with mostly peculiarities vs. personalities. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Movies that comprehend the difference between bringing dimension and merely mocking its principles usually end up winning the quirkiness war. But in the case of Eagle vs. Shark, the people behind the production just don’t know when to quit. Unlike our leads, who seem purposefully oblique and ambiguous, the rest of the surrounding support is overwritten to the point of near distraction. It’s as if the script (touted as workshopped at the exclusive Sundance Director’s and Screenwriter’s Labs) was purposefully fused over to add more than the average daily requirement of eccentricities.


Oddly enough, it’s not a novice mistake. Writer/director Taika Cohen was nominated in 2005 for a Best Short Film, Live Action Oscar (for his love in a pub Two Cars, One Night) and even though Eagle vs. Shark is his first feature, he’s someone assured of his style and overall approach. He’s also a filmmaker that wears his influences obviously and proudly. Michel Gondry gets a visual shout out via some slyly compelling stop motion sequences, and Jared Hess’s flat plane symmetry is present in abundance. You can even see snatches of the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson among the frequent flights of originality. Granted, all of this works in Cohen’s favor, fostering an optical richness and filmic texture that is hard to deny. Doubt its occupants, but we can sense – and sometimes smell - the environment these outcasts exist in.


This doesn’t mean however that Cohen gets everything right. There are a couple of minor missteps in Eagle vs. Shark, elements both internal and external that prevent us from completely enjoying the joke. On the inside is actor Jermaine Clement. One of two leads in the highly publicized HBO Summer series Flight of the Conchords, this part-Maori performer is very irritating as Jarrod. It’s not just his behavior - a good way to describe him would be as a glorified gasbag – it’s his entire tact. Jarrod has absolutely no redeeming qualities. He is jealous, petty, spiteful, arrogant, deluded, dull, and incapable of any real human emotion. And the sad thing is, Cohen never once tries to redeem him. As a matter of fact, this is another instance where you can feel the filmmaker pushing the material further and further into the extreme. When Jarrod finally faces his bully, the joke may be rather obvious, but the follow-up is borderline cruel.


Which leads to the other outer element. If Napoleon Dynamite is indeed part of Cohen’s blueprint for this project, he forgot to take into account one of Jared Hess’ greatest gifts – comedic context. All the characters in the 2004 title are not desperate or disposable. No, part of the joy in said film was the fact that Napoleon and his family/friends were blissfully unaware of their loser status. They never once acted like the dregs of humanity’s pecking order. In fact, they stood proud and defiant in the face of constant rejection and ridicule. In Eagle vs. Shark, everyone is sour and dour, ready to wallow in enormous vats of self-pity for the sake of their own selfish designs. Kip and Napoleon fight because they believe each is better than the other. Jarrod lives like a lox in his dead brother’s shadow, convinced he can never be as good as him. Naturally, his equally depressed family only aids and abets his misery.


By this point you must be wondering, is there any reason to visit this frequently funny pity party. Luckily, the answer is a resounding yes – and her name is Loren Horsley. With a face always screwed up like she’s afraid to breath, and an accent so thick its like listening to the countryside speak, her Lily is a light in what is sometimes a very dark and disturbed arena. True, she herself is a mess of issues, but she’s also hopelessly optimistic, and when cheerfulness won’t do, she perseveres with the best of them. Her role is key to whatever success Eagle vs. Shark generates, mostly because we find ourselves identifying with and rooting for her happiness. Even when we see that the ultimate end may be as part of Jarrod’s jaundiced existence, we still have hope that Lily is the one that can turn him around. While it’s rare for a single performer or performance to save an entire movie, Ms. Horsley does so – with a little help from a few of the stalwart supporting cast.


And again, she’s enough to get us over some of the film’s more problematic gaffs. In fact, in the battle between the Eagle (Jarrod’s favorite animal) and Shark (Lily’s power creature), the Discovery Channel’s favorite man eater wins every time. This is really a chick flick redesign of the Napoleon Dynamite formula, a movie that many will find far more satisfying and deep than the mannered adventures of Pedro’s mop topped campaign manager. But sometimes, the wrong tone can completely undermine a well meaning movie, and in conjunction with an aggravating male lead, Taika Cohen may have found a real recipe for rejection. But thanks to a delicate little flower who believes herself to be a ‘dangerous person’, there is more to love than loathe about this New Zealand zaniness. And feebs of the world will have a new geek goddess to worship.


 


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Thursday, Jul 12, 2007


Man it’s hot. To paraphrase Ms. Lulu Fortune, it’s more blistering than Georgia asphalt. The whole country has been gripped by that most uncomfortable of seasonal slights – the heat wave – and while the North can expect a respite come September, those of us in the more temperate part of the nation will be sweating like overweight businessmen well into November. Add on the yet to begin hurricane season and it feels like Summer is just getting…warmed up (Sorry). Anyway, here’s a good way to beat the sun’s incessant rays – take in a film. If you don’t’ have adequate air conditioning (or the means to afford it), the Cineplex is usually ice cold and loaded down with some nifty blockbuster quaffs. If, on the other hand, your central system can manage the triple digit temperatures – well, it might be good to get out after all. The premium movie channels are back in the doldrums this week, tossing out a few off-title treats that more or less died at the box office. But if you’re stuck inside this 14 July, you may be able to find some relief – environmentally and entertainment wise – from these rather slim pickings:


Premiere Pick
My Super Ex-Girlfriend


Uma Thurman should be a superstar. Not that she isn’t already, but it seems odd that the woman behind pivotal roles in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill would still be slugging away in under-developed dreck like this. At the core of this film is a very interesting idea – how would a superhero live amongst real people (in this case, already jaded New Yorkers) and deal with her depressing love life. Unfortunately, director Ivan Reitman, a one time comic genius, decided to bring the horribly miscast Luke Wilson along for the answer. The results are some of the least funny moments in a recent Tinsel Town laughfest. While she retains most of her dignity, Thurman is also lost, relying on quirks and tics to take the place of actually character development. And the storyline is so sloppy – we are introduced to a villain (played by a lax Eddie Izzard) and yet the good vs. evil dynamic fades into more romantic ridiculousness. As spectacle, it’s stunted. As entertainment, it’s even worse. (14 July, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Beerfest


Who, exactly, are Broken Lizard, and more importantly, why do they keep getting chances to make movies? Artist like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch have to struggle to finance their films, and yet this so-called comedy troupe has had three flaccid projects greenlit – Super Troopers, Club Dread and this inconsistent alcohol comedy. The plot has a pair of brothers competing in a German Fight Club style drinking competition. Sounds like a subpar Simpsons episode gone even more sophomoric. (14 July, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

All The King’s Men


For a long time, it was poised as guaranteed Oscar bait. Even with its remake status, no one could imagine Arthur Penn Warren’s political drama being bad. But somehow, Steve Zaillian found a way to reduce the narrative into a series of grandstanding stunts. Sean Penn is pretty good as Willy Stark, but the rest of his co-stars seem blindsided by the Louisiana heat. They’re so under-baked it’s like watching dough deliver dialogue. The best advice is to enter at your own risk. (14 July, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


In the Mix


Here’s a horrible idea done just as ineffectually. R&B star Usher is a DJ (big stretch) who inadvertently helps a young woman one night. Turns out she’s a mobster’s daughter, and he’s repaid for the favor by becoming her bodyguard. Huh? Anyway, this lame rom com is further proof of director Ron Underwood’s (City Slickers) fall from grace. Guess helming The Adventures of Pluto Nash will do that to you. (14 July, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
Gerry


As the first installment of what would later be dubbed ‘The Death Trilogy’ (along with the Columbine inspired Elephant and the Kurt Cobain fantasy biopic Last Days), Hollywood heavyweight Gus Van Zant tried to reconnect to his indie roots with this luminous two person drama. Casey Affleck and Matt Damon are pals out on a desert hike, wandering aimlessly like a couple of post-modern Godot watchers. Unfortunately, neither one brought any food or water, and as the elements start to take their toll, the duo must improvise ways of dealing with the harsh habitat that is swallowing them whole. Before long, fatigue sets in, and the pair is faced with very hard, very human choices. Such a shocking change of pace from his trite Tinsel Town efforts (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, the Psycho remake), this is the Van Zant that critics first fell in love with – beautiful, demanding, abstract and incredibly powerful. (18 July, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Who Gets to Call It Art?


Ever wonder how modern art, with its convention breaking canvases and radical aesthetic ideas, got its start? Oddly enough, almost all major inroads lead to Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler. During the ‘60s, New York’s fledgling bohemian scene was expanding in dozens of different directions – and Geldzahler was there to chronicle it all. Perhaps no other person did more to legitimize the many differing styles and conceits. He remains a crucial link in non-traditional technique’s eventual acceptance. (16 July, Sundance Channel, 9PM EST)

CSA: The Confederate States of America


Here’s a great bit of speculative satire – what if the South, not the North, had won the Civil War? What would America look like today with an antebellum administration in place? Filmmaker Kevin Willmott concocted this brash mock documentary, a Ken Burns like ‘what if” that examines the aftereffects of a Dixie victory. Of course, there is still slavery. And the horrifyingly racist products presented actually derive from our own real history. (16 July, IFC, 11PM EST)

Darwin’s Nightmare


Brought to Africa in the ‘40s and ‘50s to help wipe out hunger, the Nile Perch has created quite the opposite – a major natural disaster. It destroyed all other native species, and yet European markets have only increased demand. The local residents are left with nothing – no financial windfall, no fish, no natural resources to rely on. This brutal documentary, laying the blame at the feet of many, pulls no punches as it examines the horrendous exploitation of the region. (17July, Sundance Channel, 9:35PM EST)

Outsider Option
200 Motels


Frank Zappa was never what one would call a conventional musician, so its only right that his motion picture output would be equally unusual. Take this bizarre quasi-performance piece. While on tour with the Mothers of Invention in the early ‘70s, the madman virtuoso decided to chronicle life on the road. Of course, he decided to channel it via his own unique perspective and filter it through the last dying vestiges of the imploding counterculture.  The end result is a surreal stream of consciousness loaded with sex, drugs, and Zappa’s own brand of usual rock and roll. The narrative – the band’s search to get paid and laid – is secondary to all the hallucinatory visuals, wild casting choices (Keith Moon? Ringo Starr? Theodore Bickel?), and overall feeling of excessive experimentation. Not usually listed among the essential music-based movies of all time, the decades have helped temper many of the late luminary’s movie’s more outrageous aspects. Some, believe it or not, are now quite quaint. (15 July, Drive In Classics Canada, 10:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula/ Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter


Whoever concocted the idea of a Western melded with a crappy creature feature deserves a motion picture medal – or a good beating. Actually, William “One Shot” Beaudine was behind this ditzy double feature, the last in a very long line of fringe films. Neither is very good, either as horse opera or horror, but the truth is that the inherent wackiness of the premises helps pull the audience along – if only barely. (13 July, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Friday the 13th Part III


Among all the Jason Voorhees inspired sequels, this third journey into the murderous Camp Crystal Lake featured a novelty outside the standard slice and dice narrative – 3D! That’s right, the original theatrical release relied on that old ‘50s cinematic stunt to lure audiences. It made for some obvious camera tricks (items zooming directly toward the lens) and a few nasty innovations (can you say flying eyeball?). (14 July, American Movie Classics, 12:15AM EST)

Broadway Danny Rose


It’s perhaps the last pure comedy American auteur Woody Allen ever created, a fully realized vision of awkward acts, tacky talent agents, and the mafia connections floating between the two. While Mr. Annie Hall is excellent as the nebbish artist’s representative, it’s former flame Mia Farrow who really shines as a gum-smacking moll with a soft spot for lifelong losers. (18 July, Indieplex, 7:30PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jul 11, 2007

India is a massive, crowded country of hustle and grind.  With so many people, competitive drive isn’t just inevitable, it’s admirable.  Indian audiences look up to stars who they believe exemplify the rugged warrior virtues that spell success: lithe, statuesque Amitabh Bachan, brawny Sanjay Dutt, or Salman Khan.  It’s rare that someone comes along who represents the average Indian, and is loved for it.  India doesn’t usually have the wistful admiration for the reticent, yearning everyman. But if the country had their own versions of Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper, they’d probably be very close to Dilip Kumar, Naseeruddin Shah, and Shahrukh Khan.


For connoisseurs of Indian cinema, in terms of acting, there’s B.D.K. and A.D.K. - before Dilip Kumar, and after Dilip Kumar.  In 1949, he gave an intense, anguished breakthrough performance as the unrelenting love interest of Nargis in Mehboob Khan’s Andaaz.  Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, he was one of the leading stars, and the only one who was respected for his genuine acting talent. In character and career path, Kumar resembles Laurence Olivier, an urbane tragedian with an occasional penchant for light comedy, as well as Humphrey Bogart—someone wounded by life, cynical, but still rising to the occasion.  His greatest performance, as the defiant prince Salim in Mughal-E-Azam (1960), brought together his fascination with history, his theatrical desire to inhabit a great historical character, and his nuanced, vitalizing performance. It is one of the greatest Indian movies with the archetypal dilemma of all Indian heroes at the center - the choice of pride vs. duty.


Naseeruddin Shah is the great maverick of Indian stars. He’s so off-beat and unconventional in his choices, that he’s not even your traditional star.  Sharp-eyed and wiry, he resembles Jack Lemmon in the ‘60s, full of nervy energy and mordant wit.  He’s best known to international audiences as the resilient patriarch of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001).  In the ‘70s he collaborated with art film directors like Shyam Benegal, Shekhar Kapur, and Muzzaffir Ali in contemplative pieces, like Junoon (1978), Masoom (1983), and Umrao Jaan (1981).  In Umrao Jaan, Shah proved his sublime gift for character-acting by taking a minor role, that of a brothel-madam’s son and indolent pimp, Gauhar Mirza, and transforming him into an unforgettable comic portrait of ineffectual dandyism (the scene where he tries to pass off Umrao Jaan’s poetry is his own is marvelous in its feigned pomposity).  Shah continues to show off his skill year after year in films like The Great New Wonderful (2005), director Danny Leiner’s bittersweet series of vignettes about New Yorkers coping with their lives in the wake of 9/11, and in an enigmatic portrayal of a shady Bihari politician in Vishal Bhardwaj’s take on Othello, Omkara (2007).


Shahrukh Khan’s reputation precedes him. He’s huge. His celebrity is at level with Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor at the time of their Andy Warhol silkscreen portraits: movie actor as cultural icon. Swarms of people gather at his shows, his movies, and whenever he is hosting an event.  How did someone whose appeal is that he’s an accessible, everyguy grow into a superstar? Something similar happened to Tom Hanks, yet few people want to mob him when he’s in public.  People have to be literally restrained when Shahrukh walks by, and not just teens, but middle-aged women and men as well. Shahrukh’s movies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s had him as an awkward, yearning teen.  Early on he showed great range in playing both heroes and villains.  His relentless stalker in Yash Chopra’s Darr (1993) was a disarmingly poignant portrayal of a morally repugnant character, not unlike Peter Lorre’s child-murderer in M


His affability and gift for musical performance shot him up the ranks to being one of the most versatile, bankable actors. In 1998, two movies made him the most popular star in Indian commercial cinema, the deliriously inane, but wildly popular Badshaah and Karan Johar’s endearingly schmaltzy Parent Trap send-up, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. His popularity grew, and in recent years he’s shown a gift for nuanced acting in films like Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Veer-Zaara (2004), Swades (2004) and Don (2005). He’s one of India’s most well-rounded stars, a thoughtful actor as well as a great dancer and performer, but most important, he’s someone Indians identify with intimately; he could be the teasing neighbor, or the winsome cousin, or a protective brother. Watching him talk to his awe-struck fans on the game show he hosts on his off-season from making movies, Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? ) is really quite amazing: he’s unusually giving and open for someone so famous, and the audience responds with unabashed enthusiasm and gratitude. In spite of all Shahrukh’s celebrity, he’s never forgotten from where he came.



Dilip Kumar, early ‘50s



Naseeruddin Shah



Shahrukh Khan in Swades, 2004


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Tuesday, Jul 10, 2007


In a recent piece for Entertainment Weekly, bestselling author (and frequent contributor to the media mag) Stephen King made an interesting point about the entire Harry Potter series. When the final book is released later this month (July 2007), it will represent a nearly 10 year journey for the readers who first fell in love with the orphaned boy wizard and his outsized adventures. He suggests that an eight year old who was drawn into the world of Hogwarts and Quidditch, the Sorcerer’s Stone and the Prisoner of Azkaban will now be close to 18. They will have passed through grade school and may have even graduated. All now possess a world view radicalized by the onset of puberty and dating. While he admits that they should still be affected about the way creator J. K. Rowling ends the journey, he wonders if they haven’t moved beyond the emotions they associate with the character and his cohorts.


This may explain why the latest film in the ongoing cinematic interpretation of the novels – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – is so different from the other installments. There is something very intriguing going on here, a fascinating grown up subtext that suggests, as its fanbase has aged, so has the entire Potter mythology. Indeed, it’s time to stop dreaming and get down to the business at hand. Initially, such a shift is far more compelling than all the prophesying and enchantment. Almost like an espionage thriller from World War II, rebellion is in the air, both metaphorically and magically. And our hero Harry is at the center of an unpopular socio-political position. For those who’ve forgotten the previous narrative, the now notorious student tried to save a classmate from wicked Lord Valdemort’s deadly designs, and his failure has filled him with guilt. In the meantime, the Ministry of Magic (how very 1984) is downplaying the rumors of the Dark Lord’s return, and is setting up a behind the scenes plot to silence Harry once and for all.


Thus one walks, woozy and a tad paranormal punchdrunk, into this evocative entertainment, a movie meant to move away from the spectacle oriented elements of the series and into the emotional and interpersonal heft that transforms eye candy into epics. Trying to maneuver three major plotpoints at once – the ongoing battle with Voldemort, Harry’s decision to gather up a wizard’s army, and a newfound restrictive reign of terror at Hogwarts thanks to the arrival of Dark Arts instructor, the sweetly sinister Delores Umbridge – may seem like an impossible task, and many fans have worried how the longest book in the series would manage to make its multifaceted points. Even more disconcerting, longtime series screenwriter Steve Kloves (he did the adaptation on the previous four films) is not involved this time around. Indeed, both director David Yates and writer Michael Goldenburg are new to the Rowling realm.


As stated before, Harry is under close scrutiny by the Ministry. When he wards off an attack using a banned spell (he is not old enough to employ it), a witch’s witch hunt ensues. At a hearing before the board, our hero is defended by his loyal friend and Hogwart’s headmaster Dumbledore. Yet all this does is make the bureaucracy bitter. They bring in Umbridge to lay down order – and, some fear, pave the way for Voldemort’s eventual take over – turning her particularly important class into an ineffectual routine of rote memorization. Angered that they aren’t learning how to defend themselves, Harry is convince by longtime best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger to start teaching the others. Soon, a ragtag group of recruits are using a secret room to prepare for battle. As Harry is haunted by dreams of the Dark Lord, a confrontation between all three – the boy, the beast, and the battleaxe – looms large.


For full blown Potter heads, there is no need to worry about the infusion of new creative forces.  While some of the subtlety and depth from Phoenix’s fleshed out pages may be missing, this fifth installment is still immensely entertaining. Beginning with a bang and ending on an incredible display of martial magic, Yates is a director who understands cinematic shorthand. He gets lots of information across in clever newspaper montages, using the iconic Daily Prophet as a means of supplying backstory and subtext. Similarly, minor flashbacks for the previous films fill in informational blanks that a 129 minute movie can’t possibly afford to confront. Granted, anyone coming into this movie blind, without an inkling about what’s going on or where we are in the Potter paradigm will be wildly confused. Like walking into the middle of a play’s third act, number five is not the place to start your Muggle modification.


But if you’re invested in the whole wizard universe, Order of the Phoenix should provide untold personal pleasures. Aside from seeing your favorite characters again (Gary Oldman’s emblematic Sirius Black, Julie Walters’ jovial Mrs. Weasley), new recruits to the storyline also shine. For her part, Helena Bonham Carter is perfectly depraved as Death Eater Bellatrix Lastrange, and Evanna Lynch is defiantly ditzy as slightly loony loner girl Luna Lovegood. But the real secondary star here – after Daniel Radcliff’s dazzling turn as our Harry – is Imelda Staunton as the devilish Delores Umrbidge. Playing the part of underhanded villainess perfectly, she exudes a kind of pent up paranoia and dictatorial derangement. In her office outfitted with live kitten commemorate plates (tacky and terrifying), her preference for pink hides a soul as black as pitch. With the help of her Inquisition Squad – nothing subtle about this amoral administrator – she begins to undermine everything Dumbledore has done. Before long, she’s managed to turn Hogwarts into a stifling center of cold conformity.


Naturally, we demand a massive comeuppance, and one of the many joys in this thoroughly engaging film is watching Yates and Goldenburg build to her possible retribution. Following the continued quest to discover the truth about Voldemort and the title organization’s preparations for the eventual showdown, this is a movie that makes us aware of its intricacies, and asks us to pay close attention to what is going on. Of course, it helps to have read the four previous books (or at the very least, seen the other films), and yet Yates never allows things to tumble completely out of control. Those pining for all the meat in Rowling’s writing will probably be disappointed – its impossible to condense almost 800 pages into a little over 130 – but if they accept the film on its own terms, they will find a great deal to enjoy.


So will those just slightly outside the fervent fanbase. Yates has fun with his visuals here, rendering the familiar spaces of Hogwarts and the newer locales (like a Ministry mausoleum filled with crystal ball prophecies) into stunning cinematic backdrops. He also plays within the genre, referencing Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (which is ironic, considering that the ex-pat Python was the first director approached about helming the Potter franchise) and drops a foray into Lord of the Rings territory (as when Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid shares a ‘secret’ with Harry and Hermione). And King is partially right – this is a darker, more demanding Potter plot. Kids who’ve just been introduced to the wizard’s wonderstuff might not be ready to take on such adult material. Death and evil are in the air after all, and Harry’s fate definitely hangs in the balance.


While one might question the viability of the franchise once Rowling releases the last Potter tome (imagine how films six and seven will play out once all the beans are finally spilled), five finds the series settling in quite nicely. There will be complaints from completists, and without a foundation of familiarity with the serialized narratives basics, one could become instantly lost. But for full fledged fantasy that doesn’t skimp on the imagination or the intrigue, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a brave, exciting entertainment. It makes the impending end of the series all the sadder.



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Monday, Jul 9, 2007


When it broadcast its final episode on 8 August, 1999, fans feared they had seen the last of their beloved cowtown puppet show. After 10 seasons, 198 installments, and a major channel switch, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was offering up its last original take on bad movies – in this case, the Italian spy spoof Danger: Diabolik. As with all last shows, the series tried to wrap up various storylines, explain away certain elements, and end on a proper note of closure and nostalgia. While MST3K as it was otherwise known went on to last in reruns for three more years, the company behind the production, Best Brains, slowly folded up shop and dismissed any future potential projects. It did indeed seem like we’d never see the likes of Joel, Mike, Crow and Tom Servo ever again.


Fast forward to 2006. Former MST head writer Mike Nelson has been making a name for himself as a solo satirist, helping fledgling DVD distributor Legend Films sell copies of crappy public domain titles like Reefer Madness and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Thanks to his clever commentaries, similar in style to his old days on the Satellite of Love, Nelson was renewing interest in old films, while providing hope to fans that a Mystery Science revival is around the corner. Adding fuel to the fire was RiffTrax, an MP3 service started by the company that allowed Nelson, along with fellow familiar faces Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, to crack wise over contemporary movies. The popularity of these downloadable comic criticisms, hitting on such well known classics as The Matrix, Battlefield Earth, and Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, proved that there was an audience eager to experience more bad movie bashing. 


Now, thanks to Shout! Factory, The Film Crew is here. Picking up almost directly where Mystery Science left off, and losing none of the previous show’s wit or audacity, Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy are back, playing loveable losers working for an obsessed media mogul. Their job – provide a commentary track for every movie (bad or good) lacking same. After an online poll allowed fans to choose the first film to be tackled, the 10 July release of Hollywood After Dark shows incredible product promise. While the backstory and skit material make up a much smaller portion of the overall presentation, the quintessential quipping we’ve come to expect from these fully seasoned pros is provided in slaphappy spades. For Mystery Science devotees, this is an undeniable dream come true.


For those unfamiliar with how the process works, here is a short rundown. As a movie plays in the background, our three heroes use the hackneyed plotting, pathetic dialogue, and obtuse directorial choices as fodder for their funny business. They make jokes. They crack wise. They provide a plethora of pop culture allusions, and frequently fall into surreal, self-absorbed inferences – all in the name of mockery and merriment. During the MST days, it was a human (Mike, or series creator Joel Hodgson) and two robots (voiced by Trace Beaulieu, Corbett, and Murphy) doing the ribbing. Now, it’s in the guise of three bumbling archivists, hired by Bob Honcho (seen and hear via portrait and telephone only – Charles Townsend style) to provide his much beloved alternate narrative tracks. There are no silhouettes on the screen, no scientific experimentation subplot. Just grade-Z films and grade-A funnymen.


And Hollywood After Dark is the perfect picture to start off with. Culled from the days when exploitation could make hundreds of sow’s ears out of a couple of cinematic silk purses, strippers and Navy seamen take an unbelievably bum rap as future Golden Girl Rue McClanahan proves that even noted television stars had to get their embarrassing start somewhere. Yes, crazy as it seems, everyone’s favorite oversexed sitcom matron actually began her career in the low-rent films of the grindhouse circuit. Long before she became a small-screen staple in shows like Maude, she was churning out crap like The Grass Eater, Door-to-Door Maniac, and How To Succeed with Girls. Yet two of the films she made with journeyman John Hayes—1963’s Five Minutes to Love (originally entitled The Rotten Apple) and 1968’s Walk the Angry Beach (later called Hollywood After Dark)—represent the nadir of her reputation with the raincoat crowd. Talky, trashy, and just a little too turgid for most genre fans, both films represent over-processed scripts with nearly incoherent consideration for cinematic basics like narrative and characterization.


For its part, Hollywood After Dark is just a heist film welded to a melodrama and spiced with a pair of strip scenes to give the debauchery demographic something to sneer over. At the core is a lover’s triangle between Rue’s Sandy, Jack Vorno’s Tony, and clinical depression. Both of our leads have personas baked in hopeless melancholy and each one expresses it in a decidedly different way. Tony gets liquored up, argues with complete strangers, and sulks. Sandy sashays her fanny, gets molested on the casting couch, and teases her paramour. Together, they’re about as much fun as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald at a marriage retreat. But writer/director Hayes is obviously not out for levity and hi-jinks. He wants to sell this film as a frightening exposé, a chance to see how Tinseltown tears apart, chews up, and spits out people like Tony and Sandy every single day. Unfortunately, instead of just making a documentary about the local bus depot, he decided to forge ahead with a scattered script full of lame action scenes and half-started heart-to-hearts.


Thanks to the direct to home video dynamic, which keeps the nasty standards and practices pundits at bay, The Film Crew can take on the baser elements in the narrative – burlesque, sexual battery, criminal intent – and lay into them with equally off-color comments. There is no cursing here, but fans not used to hearing their favorite armchair critics talking about genitalia and horndogging may be thrown off a bit. Similarly, these new installments sound less rehearsed than previous MST style strafing. Murphy and Corbett frequently break up over their own gags, and there are several moments when the choice of a particular word or slightly crude comment has the gang backpeddling in obvious disbelief. Yet for the most part, this is quality old school slamming, the mockery a minute amusement we’ve come to know and love. While McClanahan is barbequed quite nicely, her co-star Vorno get’s more than his fair share of static. And it’s even worse for big league bad guy Nick (played by Paul Bruce). From his oil slicked hair to mouth full of tantalizing teeth, the guys can’t get enough of his manic mobster.


About halfway through the presentation, a standard work siren goes off, and soon the Crew is on a “lunch break”. It’s interesting that the DVD would employ such a conceit, since one thing MST3K fans will notice right off the bat is how weird the concept plays without the standard commercial break every few minutes. Back during the original series, these pauses acted like rib tickling rest stops. Not only did they give the creators a chance to offer up themed skits and songs, but the audience was allowed a moment to compose itself before the next onslaught of silliness. Here, after 30 straight minutes, one feels the need for some downtime. For their part, Nelson, Murphy and Corbett hold an “eat and meet”, where bizarre corporate spin speak substitutes for easygoing meal talk. Perhaps a tad too clever for its own good, it may be more inside than Office Space. Here’s hoping the next few installments in the series offer up less mannered material.


Indeed, Shout! Factory will be releasing future “episodes” including Killers from Space, The Giant of Marathon, and the bad movie classic Wild Women of Wongo. If Hollywood After Dark is any indication of the quality we can expect, one suspects that the Film Crew could be around for a very long time. DVD has helped redefine the rights issues that used to plague Mystery Science, and with a wealth of available public domain/easily obtainable material at their disposal, one imagines that the series is subject to the interest of the participants. Anyone who has longed to hear those mighty Midwestern voices once again violating the sacred vow of silence during a stagnant cinematic cesspool can now fully rejoice. While Rifftrax may have the marquee value, The Film Crew is coming up fast. This essential digital diversion is the answer to many a MiSTies prayers. 


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